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    It’s been raining off and on all morning in Järvenpää, a small city north of Helsinki. The streets are wet and the sidewalks muddy, but the floors in Harjula School’s entrance are gleaming.

    The entrance is filled with hooks and cubby holes where schoolchildren hang their coats and take off their shoes. Students and teachers walk around in stockinged feet or in “house shoes,” slippers to keep the muck out when the weather is bad.

    Down the hall from the entry, the building opens up to a bright atrium with tables and chairs, which also serves as a cafeteria. Floor to ceiling windows let the light pour in even on a gloomy day and provide a view onto the outside play area, a huge pine tree (which is decorated at Christmas) and a neighbouring residential area, with brick houses and bright, almost fluorescent green lawns.

    At the back of the atrium is a raised stage, blocked off by a retractable wall that opens to a larger, space used for big gatherings, sports events and theatre productions. Throughout the building, thick, accordion-style walls can be opened or closed to enable teachers and children to come together in big groups, or be whittled down into smaller, more intimate gatherings. It’s a kaleidoscope of spaces that twist and turn as needs change.

    The innovatively designed school is the brainchild of Tarja Edry, the principal of Harjula School, and Jan Mikkonen, pedagogical facility development manager for Järvenpää. In many ways, Harjula’s design represents the next step in Finnish education, a country already known for cutting-edge, highly effective schooling. “We had a vision, together with Tarja, about what we planned to do,” Mikkonen says.

    That vision was to deconstruct the traditional school, with its long hallways and closed classrooms, and rebuild it as a more open, more flexible space that could support different kinds of instruction, such as team teaching, where instructors work in groups or share classes, collaborative projects that encourage students to communicate and solve problems together and creative exercises that let children express their own personalities and talents.

    Because all the rooms are multifunctional, teachers move from one area to another or share classrooms with another teacher. They no longer have dedicated classrooms. Edry hoped that changing the space would push teachers out of their comfort zones and force them to rethink how children learned.

    The somewhat radical approach caused conflict, however. Some teachers left. “Those who didn’t want to stay started searching for another school, because they didn’t want to change their pedagogy,” she says. The old school building was more traditional, with classrooms for each teacher. The new building is “totally different,” she says. “Everybody had to get used to it.”

    Education has always been a way to upgrade socially. But education isn’t so easily the way to jump up the social ladder anymore.

    • Merja Narvo-Akkola – Chief of education services for Järvenpää

    Finland’s educational system is among the best in the world, according to the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA). But the country is grappling with the same issues as everyone else – the shortened attention span of children raised in a digital world, learning losses accumulated during the pandemic, rising absenteeism and overburdened parents who struggle to set limits and, more importantly, spend time with their children. “Children are feeling a bit insecure,” Edry says. “We can see it. They really want to be with adults.”

    Finland is up against other challenges as well. It is historically a homogeneous country, but that is changing. By 2030, immigrants are expected to account for 25% of school children in major cities like Espoo and Helsinki, and they are struggling to learn the language and to read at the same level as their peers. More generally, the gap between strong students and weaker ones has widened, and boys in particular are falling behind. Finland is even starting to see signs of childhood poverty, a new phenomenon in the country.

    “Education has always been a way to upgrade socially,” says Merja Narvo-Akkola, chief of education services for Järvenpää. Finnish education is highly decentralised, and municipalities are responsible for planning, building and running schools. “But education isn’t so easily the way to jump up the social ladder anymore.”

    Why buildings matter

    When Principal Edry and educators like her try to rethink education infrastructure, they need support. Providing that support is central to the Constructing Education framework, a new approach to financing education infrastructure being promoted by the Council of Europe Development Bank and the European Investment Bank. EU members spend billions of euros on education infrastructure each year, and the money needs to be deployed in a way that best supports learning and prepares children for the future.

    For example, the framework recommends providing funds to develop teachers’ competencies, helping them find the best ways to use the new, snazzy spaces, which hopefully avoids the pitfall of moving into an innovative building and teaching the same old way.

    “I think what brought the Constructing Education framework about is the realisation that you are putting up so much money to invest in these very innovative buildings and then you see that the teaching staff is not ready to use it,” says Yael Duthilleul, who works on the Constructing Education framework for the Council of Europe Development Bank. “You think, ‘We’re wasting our investments.’ For us as financiers, it’s an issue because we’re mobilising money for these projects, but the impact that you expect, which is on students’ learning outcomes, is not guaranteed.”

    The Constructing Education framework tries to address teachers’ professional development and coaching, planning sessions, consultations with parents and students – things that all take time and resources, which are almost never included in the total budget of new educational facilities.

    “In Finland, we can’t put that into the investment budget. We have to find that money from somewhere else," says Narvo-Akkola, chief of education at Järvenpää. At Harjula school, Edry was forced to use funds from her general school budget to pay for teacher support before moving into the new building.

    Under the framework, budgets for new school buildings would include funds for professional development, consultations with education experts and post-occupancy evaluation tools to better understand what kinds of spaces and approaches work best.

    “Right now, financing education infrastructure is considered as a stand-alone investment,” says Silvia Guallar, an education economist at the European Investment Bank, who works on the Constructing Education framework. “Instead, such investments should follow a more comprehensive approach and include all the complementary activities, like consulting the education community and supporting teachers’ transition into the new spaces. That will enhance the impact the upgraded learning environment has on teaching pedagogies and student learning.”

    Support for teachers is crucial when countries are trying to modernise rigid education systems. An ongoing reform of Finnish education, which began rolling out in 2016, includes a chapter on how to create environments conducive to learning. One central theme is that learning takes place everywhere, not just in the classroom. The reform also stresses the importance of team teaching, which frees teachers up to give students individual attention when necessary. These approaches, however, require pushing the boundaries of traditional school architecture, with walled-off classrooms and neat rows of desks.


    One of the ideas behind the Finnish education reform is that learning takes place everywhere. At Harjula School, students practice their English while taking the stairs.

    “Team teaching comes with the idea of flexibility of the space and sharing space, as well as making learning available everywhere. This has lots of implications for furniture,” says Duthilleul of the Council of Europe Development Bank. “If you want kids to learn everywhere, then the furniture should be like home. You should be comfortable so you can learn.”

    Guallar and Duthilleul, along with a group of experts, are following the building or renovation of two schools in Espoo, two in Järvenpää (Harjula is one of them) and two in Italy to understand better how the innovative buildings are conceived and later used. The knowledge gained could be shared with local governments in other countries planning education infrastructure.

    Some of the data gathered during the post-occupancy evaluation was made available at a Constructing Education event in Finland in mid-November. Järvenpää was not initially part of the project, but Narvo-Akkola got involved in the Constructing Education framework in her previous job as manager for district education in Espoo, which was funding education investments in part with loans from the European Investment Bank and Council of Europe Development Bank. She has continued to advise the project in her new role in Järvenpää.

    The European Investment Bank financed more than €9 billion in education infrastructure from 2017 to 2022, 97% of which was spent within the European Union. It provided around €1 billion for education projects in Finland alone. For its part, the Council of Europe Development Bank financed about €4 billion for projects with an education component in the same period, out of which €410 million went to Finland.

    It’s not necessarily about the amount of money that you spend, but also the efficiency with which you spend the money. It’s about targeting the right sectors in the right way.

    • Nihan Koseleci Blanchy – Senior education economist at the European Investment Bank

    Finland spends about 3.8% of its gross domestic product on primary and secondary education, which is in line with other wealthy countries like Belgium (4.2%), Germany (2.9%) or France (3.5%), according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “It’s not necessarily about the amount of money that you spend, but also the efficiency with which you spend the money,” says Nihan Koseleci Blanchy, a senior education economist at the European Investment Bank, who is responsible for the EU bank’s investments in Finland. “It’s about targeting the right sectors in the right way.”

    The whole spring was hard because we were opening the school for the first time, and we were stressed about it. We had to succeed.

    • Tarja Edry – Principal, Harjulan School

    The approach gives Edry an enormous amount of power to remake her school into a more open, more flexible institution that embraces new approaches like team teaching, which the school began implementing before the move but which it expanded radically in the new building. “I tell candidates that if you are still interested, then you can come to the interview and see if you really like it.”

    The Herculean task of reinventing her school, however, took a toll on Edry. She and two assistants moved into the building in the spring of 2022. Wires jutted out of the walls. She spent three months with no internet and no telephone, even though she was still principal of the former school. “I couldn’t work,” she says. “The whole spring was hard because we were opening the school for the first time, and we were stressed about it. We had to succeed.”

    She pressed on through the summer to prepare the new campus, and then suffered from a burnout in the fall when the pressure finally lifted. Exhausted, she took a six-week medical leave to recover. The Constructing Education framework aims to provide funds to give principals, teachers and city officials the extra support they need when conceiving, building and moving into new, innovative schools.

    Mikkonen says that experience led Järvenpää to rethink how to better support principals during a big move. The city now puts an entire team of teachers, principals and other staff in place. “I’m sorry that Tarja had to experience that because we didn’t realise that moving in would be so hard,” he says, adding that the Harjula campus was the first big project for himself and Edry. “But now we have a system for how it should be done.”


    Tarja Edry, principal of Harjula School, stands between two classrooms separated by retractable walls, which enable teachers to combine groups of students.

    Songs about a dream school

    Today in Finland, educators are talking about how to create spaces that can be opened up, but also closed in when needed. For many schools, the solution has been flexible, yet thick and almost soundproof retractable walls. (At Harjula the walls let about 42 decibels of noise pass, about as much disruption as a quiet library). Linking two classrooms with a retractable wall allows teachers of two or more classes to come together and instruct a larger group of as many as 50 students.

    Because teachers don’t have dedicated classrooms, children are constantly moving around the school, which is divided into three main areas: the Tundra, the Jungle and the Desert. The students chose the themes and the colours – blues and greys for the Tundra, greens for the Jungle and oranges and browns for the Desert.

    Children were intricately involved in the school design. “They were drawing,” Edry says. “They were coming up with songs to tell me what they wanted.”

    Every space is a chance to learn. The floor of one hallway features a square with differently coloured number blocks that add up to 100. In the same area, an oversized protractor counts degrees up to 180. Steps leading to the second floor are labelled with the days of the month in Finnish and English.

     “Before they go to the third grade, we want children to have learned really strong writing and mathematical skills,” Edry says. “Children can already start to fall behind in fourth or fifth grade. If we ensure that they are strong when they go into the third grade, it’s like giving them wings to the upper grades.”


    Part of the Harjula School campus served as a hospital during World War II.

    The campus is split into two main parts: a new building and a renovated brick structure that served as a hospital during World War II. Keeping young and older children at the same school campus is central to Finland’s comprehensive schools, which were created in 1970s and are credited, along with valued and highly trained teachers, with the country’s strong educational results. Harjula, which is part of the Constructing Education project, serves about 640 students, pre-schoolers and young children in day care. 

    The new campus cost €23 million, which isn’t a particularly large budget for a school of its size. About €5 million went to renovating the 1930s brick building, and another €18 million to the new, more modern building. The new campus covers about 4 000 square meters, significantly less than the old school grounds.

    Edry and Mikkonen squeezed out the money for the fancy furnishings and the German-made retractable walls by slashing the amount of space typically allocated per student – from 11 square meters to 7.

    Cramming all the classes and activities into that space requires superhero organisation. Edry shows off a rectangular board with colour-coded tabs that represent each class and activity. Teachers and administrators spend two days before classes start in August scheduling every tiny detail of school life over the entire academic year. “It’s a job to plan it,” Mikkonen chuckles.


    An organisational board illustrates the elaborate planning goes into assigning spaces to classes and activities at Harjula School.

    The new building is about more than fun themes and sun-drenched spaces, though. It’s also designed to help teachers better deal with children who have social or behavioural problems, or suffer from anxiety, a growing problem since the pandemic.

    For example, a small-conflict resolution room provides a space for children to gather after a fight and talk out their problems, often without an adult present. Outside the door is a suggestion box that students fill with their ideas on how to improve school life and social harmony.

    Large conference rooms scattered throughout each section of the school allow for meetings between parents, teachers and administrators. “Around one child, there can be 10 people who work to solve the problem,” Edry says.

    “Some of these children have such a broken home,” she says. “And they are broken by their experience. They have a chance to change their lives if we intervene early.”

    The diamond motto   

    Karhusuo school is perched atop a hill in a heavily wooded suburb outside Espoo. Principal Mimmu Hellsten’s office overlooks the trees and nearby homes, which glow in the autumn light. “I think there is scientific proof that it's good for mental health to see woods and forest,” she muses.

    Karhusuo is Finnish for bear, and the school’s name refers to a bear’s den. Its motto is “strong as a bear, soft as a teddy.” But the school is increasingly identifying with a different image.

    Finnish Hellsten holds up a piece of paper with a drawing of a blue diamond. The Finnish words Opin (I learn)/ kasvan (I grow)/ kehityn (I develop) are written across the top. The kinds of environments that children learn in are displayed on the outer edges of the illustration: social, physical, mental and digital. Around the diamond are phrases describing how children are motivated to learn: I can do good/I am accepted/ I am emotionally involved/I get to influence and participate/I can succeed

    The diamond is displayed around the school on posters. Hellsten says educators chose the diamond image because diamonds “mean something very important, very valuable. It also takes time and energy to make a diamond.”


    A diamond poster displayed at Karhusuo School.

    School administrators go through the diamond philosophy with teachers and school assistants every August when children return to class, explaining the concepts to new arrivals and refreshing them with existing staff. Teachers also discuss the ideas with students in their classes.

    “These are the goals we have for every child,” Hellsten says. “That they have the feeling, ‘Okay, I can succeed. This is not too hard for me. I can participate. My voice is heard.’ ”

    Getting group dynamics right is tough, considering that educators like Hellsten, Edry and the teachers at their schools say children no longer know how to act in a group setting. Part of the problem is that parents are unwilling to discipline children who misbehave at school. “Parents trust what the children say so blindly,” Hellsten says. “They don’t have so much time for their children, so they want the time they spend with their children to be happy.”

    The lack of limitations creates problems when children are in groups. They don’t know how to cede space and attention to other children. Children’s social skills also suffered during the pandemic. Finnish schools only closed for three months, but educators see the scars. “It was terrible,” Hellsten says.

    And mobile phones? They are a scourge. Children spend too much time on mobile devices, which can affect their sleep and ability to concentrate. “For example, reading a book, reading a chapter – it's way too long. It’s way too boring for them,” says Salla Ruohomäki, a chemistry and home economics teacher who has been teaching for almost 20 years. “And it’s, like, two pages.”

    Educators are particularly concerned about the growing gap between the results of children who are succeeding at school and those who are struggling. Most Finnish children used to fall somewhere in the middle, and that strong middle group was largely responsible for the country’s excellent PISA scores, educators say. Those scores have slipped in recent years, and like many European countries, they took a particular beating in the newly released 2022 PISA results.

    “The ones who should be in the middle don’t see the point of doing the hard work to improve,” says Arto Niva, a chemistry and physics teacher. “They’re like, well, maybe I could get this grade, but it would take a lot of work. I’m not that interested.”


    From left, Karhusuo teachers Sofia Repo, Arto Niva and Salla Ruohomäki.

    Worried about these issues, Hellsten and other teachers read up on motivational theories, which led to creating the diamond motto. One of the things that emerged was that people were motivated by the idea of contributing positively to a group. She tried to use that approach on another thorny issue ­– boys’ underperformance in reading, math and science, according to PISA results.

    The problem perplexed Hellsten. “I asked myself, ‘What are we doing wrong? Why aren’t boys doing well?’ When we look at politics and the business world, most of the leaders are men.”

    To bring boys into the fold, Karhusuo School decided to organise a football tournament with eight teams representing the different grades. The boys got involved, planning the teams and matches, and students were playing a game that afternoon. “I think we have succeeded in making boys feel they can do good for the whole school,” Hellsten says.

    These are the goals we have for every child. That they have the feeling, ‘Okay, I can succeed. This is not too hard for me. I can participate. My voice is heard.'

    • Mimmu Hellsten – Principal, Karhusuo School

    Modern spaces for modern problems

    Hellsten and the teachers had the issues facing education in mind when they planned the school campus, which includes a modern wooden structure built for the primary school about five years ago and brick building for grades seven through nine that constructed three years ago. The school is part of the Constructing Education project.

    Karhusuo has many similar features to the Harjula campus. Spaces are easily modified. A retractable wall links a light-filled auditorium to a bigger sports gym. A smattering of smaller rooms allow teachers to work with two or three students at a time, and special classrooms are dedicated to classes of eight autistic children, with their two teachers and four assistants. Finland integrates children with difficulties like autism into its comprehensive schools. The campus even includes a bomb shelter, which is mandatory in Finnish schools.

    The sprawling campus accommodates about 350 children in primary school and just over 200 in lower secondary school. Like Harjula, children pad around in their stockinged feet or slippers.


    Mimmu Hellsten, principal of Karhusuo School, in front of a moveable poem. Two of the lines read “during lessons, pupils are running away” and “children’s brains are freezing.”

    Hellsten and a group of four teachers were involved in the design and planning of the building. “It wasn’t obligatory, but I wanted a chance to say what I wanted, and a chance to hear also from architects – why this can't be done or why this choice isn’t right,” Hellsten says. “It was very important for me to understand also how this building works and why these choices have been made.”

    The architects held workshops with children to discuss their dream school. One of the things that came out of those meetings was children’s desire to have smaller spaces where they could study or simply isolate themselves from the larger group. The architect adjusted the school design to create those spaces. “This helps with anxiety,” Hellsten says, “They have some time to get away from the group.”

    Consultants helped teachers and administrators figure out best how to configure the spaces and to prepare the move, which reduced the stress and upheaval. They also educated them on group dynamics and motivational theories.

    But once again, the money for consultants and teacher coaching and training came out of Hellsten’s school budget.


    Students in the library after school.

    Teachers at Karhusuo praise the environment that Hellsten has created, and they say the positive culture helps them cope with the enormous pressure they are under. But Hellsten and Harjula’s Edry pushed forward their schools largely because they had a vision and the tenacity to see it through. Not all schools have such dedicated leaders. The Constructing Education framework wants to support innovation more generally, by rethinking how buildings are conceived and by ensuring all school principals and teachers receive the support they need to exploit the potential of new spaces and improve learning.

    Finns believe in the power of education to create a more stable and cohesive society. While Karhusuo is a middle-class or even upper-middle class neighbourhood, one-third of the school’s students come from lower-income areas. Finland also has few private schools – most people pass through the public system.

    “We’re a small country. I think our power is this free education,” Hellsten says. “We have put our money into ensuring that our children are doing well, and feeling well and learning well, so that they can use their capabilities and find their strengths.”

    “But that takes time and money,” she says. “Even though education costs a lot, it comes back in the future. And if you save money now, then it costs a lot more in the future.”